Self Appreciation for Postdocs: You ARE Employable!

By Sally Burn

This week was NPAW2015 – no, not National Prosthodontics Awareness Week (which shares the same acronym), but National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2015. The organizers, the National Postdoc Association, champion our rights year round but use this week to focus wider attention on our 90,000 strong ranks and make us feel appreciated. They have their work cut out. If we take salary, job security, academic job prospects, mental health, and work/life balance (particularly for female scientists) as metrics of institutional gratitude, it rapidly becomes clear that postdocs are not poster children for appreciation.

A postdoc, according to Wikipedia, is “a person conducting research after the completion of their doctoral studies (typically a PhD) as part of a temporary appointment, usually in preparation for an academic faculty position.” The problem for modern postdocs, particularly in the life sciences, is that “temporary” is starting to last much longer and the coveted faculty position is becoming harder to attain than twenty years ago. Moving on then to “appreciation” – what does that mean? The first definition I found was “the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.” It suddenly struck me that instead of waiting for a pat on the head from our employers or the NIH, we should instead be focusing on self appreciation of the qualities that make us good postdocs… and recognizing how valuable these qualities are in the non-academic job market.

Transferable skills are something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year, as I prepare to leave the familiar yet cruel bosom of Mother Academia. When I first started thinking about what I could do next I came up with… nothing. Zilch. Nada. I know how to do embryonic dissections and make various chemical solutions. What possible good would those skills serve in the “real” world? I was, I concluded, likely unemployable as anything other than a postdoc. But I didn’t want to be a PI. And so I reached the internal conflict that so many postdocs encounter: we are single-mindedly trained for a mythical beast of a position and when we don’t attain that position, be it through choice or otherwise, we have no idea what else we can do.

Rather than fall into a pit of despair I’ve spent much of the last year educating myself about what else is out there and, more importantly, how utterly, awesomely qualified I am for it. Turns out, postdocs are super-employable. Not convinced? Here are Scizzle’s top skills that postdocs can bring to the table:


1) Research skills

There is a whole world of research outside of academia. And it usually pays way better. Whether your skills are clustered at the forefront of molecular biology, all in silico, or more about standing in rivers collecting insects, they will be highly prized by some employer out there. If you want to stay in research, there are many options: biotech, pharmaceutical, medical devices, government, the list goes on. You are very unlikely to be able to continue your exact current project (possibly a relief to some of us), so think laterally about how your skill set is applicable. You currently culture lung epithelium? Great, you are an expert on epithelial cell biology – cosmetic companies would love to have you in their skin lab. Your postdoc was all about the mouse immune system? Pharmaceutical companies would welcome your expertise in developing human monoclonal antibodies.


2) Project management

Postdocs know A LOT about project management; it’s something we do every day. We identify a question and then design a series of experiments to answer it. In planning our experiments we must take into account time, budget, and resources. As the project progresses we must react to failures or unexpected results by designing alternate strategies, again asking do these new plans answer the original question. Once we have data we analyze it and ask whether it answers the question and/or suggests new paths to follow. We often have a set deadline to achieve all this by (paper submission, lab meeting, conference). All in all, postdocs are project management bad asses. In the real world, this translates to being an attractive candidate for jobs as project managers in the pharmaceutical industry and also in many non-research environments.


3) Writing and communication

A common stereotype is that scientists are socially inept bad communicators. On the contrary, postdocs are communication polymaths. When you write a paper or grant you are taking your vast background knowledge and several years’ worth of data, and distilling it down into a concise summary of why the question is important, what you found, and what that means, usually for a reader outside of your niche. If you enjoy this process you may be ideal for employment at a medical communications agency. Perhaps what floats your boat is peer reviewing manuscripts, trying to decide whether a new finding adds to the field, and whether the authors really have shown what they say. If so, an editorial career could be in your future. Or maybe the biggest kick you get is presenting your work at conferences and then talking about it to anyone who’ll listen at the networking session. If you are adept at verbally communicating your science, particularly to a non-expert audience, you could thrive as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL). MSLs are experts in a field who interact with medical and academic professionals on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, conveying knowledge about a product to those involved with it.


4) Broad knowledge of science and the scientific process

If you are interested in science outside of your field – and are a good communicator – you may want to consider a career in science advocacy, policy, or diplomacy. Science advocacy entails relaying what scientists need, often to the government; science policy involves working on both policies that affect science and on how science shapes policies. On a more international scale, science diplomacy involves scientific collaboration between countries to solve a common problem (we’ve already discussed science diplomacy in depth – see here).


5) Ability to quickly assimilate new knowledge

One path taken by ex-postdocs is consultancy. A consultant may one week be asked to provide a solution to dwindling sales of a car, while the next advising a pharmaceutical company on why they should be switching gears to invest in biosimilars. Your postdoc wasn’t on cars or big pharma? Doesn’t matter. The key skill that you have is your ability to research a topic, assimilate the knowledge, critically evaluate it, and come up with new ideas relating to it. This is what consultants do. And they often get paid very handsomely for it.


6) Data analysis

All those hours spent processing and looking for patterns in your data have real-world value. Data scientists are in hot demand across a range of industries. And if you have coding skills to throw into the mix (particularly Python and R) then you’re even more attractive. If not, it’s never too late to learn – pick up Python online at Codecademy and R at DataCamp.


7) A sterling work ethic

NIH salary for a first year postdoc is $42,840, or $823.85 a week. I am not unique in having worked 12 hour days, seven days a week; a first year postdoc doing this will earn $9.81 an hour, a figure above the federal minimum wage ($7.25) but below the median wage at Costco ($13.14). While earning their $9.81 they will push themselves to get a seemingly hopeless experiment to work, all the while eschewing food, sleep, and normal human contact. Then, once the experiment finally fails they will go home to rest, perhaps cry, definitely eat some ice cream, and then come back again the next day to try something new. The capacity of the postdoc to work hard to achieve results on low pay, with little job security, and with no scope for promotion or financial reward is tremendous. Any employer would be lucky to have a postdoc join their ranks – don’t you forget it!


Want to know more about your next move? Do what you know best – research. Attend career panels at your institution, talk to ex-postdocs who’ve moved outside of academia, and set up job searches (for example on LinkedIn or Oystir) based on your skills – just to get an idea of what is out there. Then identify which skills need working on and gain experiences to improve these. An excellent use of your time would be to scoot over to the Independent Development Plan (IDP) website, where you can generate a list of science occupations you are most suited to, based on your answers to an extensive survey of your skills, interests, and values. Your personalized IDP then sets goals for the year, to help you on the way to your ideal career.

Squeezed Science – Should We Switch to a Business Mindset?


By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

It is a common conversation topic among researchers, but it was not until the NPR article saw the light, and the dark side, that the public realized the problems that young scientists are facing when pursuing a successful career in Academia. As we raise awareness about these tribulations, my colleagues mentioned how a “postdoc”’s quality life depends on the quality of the lab, the institution, the project, the relationships with colleagues and the Principal investigator or PI (the boss), not forgetting that this is a very self driven career. So, if your hypothesis is very difficult to prove, or you have been hitting your head against the wall with all the negative results that took you years to get, you may eventually come to hating this path and leaving Academia. The same if you have been working in a non “hot field” where the funding sources do not consider interesting enough to support or your PI is not supportive, or you have a very wicked competence inside or outside the lab. All these negative situations can aggravate the perspective of the very little options one may have by pursuing a career in Academia. On the other hand, if you are obtaining excellent results, publishing in top tier journals, made hundreds of good connections and collaborators, have a “great boss” and literally love you job… well, probably you are also doomed…

One solution could be implementing the business approach to the scientific mindset: Why only having one PI per lab? At the end, two minds think more than 1. Perhaps collaborative research centers have a solution were 2 or more PIs can have access to more equipment, grants and professionals, and therefore use the best skills needed for the job, like a company where you have an executive committee and you distribute the stock between the employees, in order to make them be part of the enterprise.

Having a business mindset would mean to have a planed strategy about your career development. Having a backup career plan is one example of this: starting to apply for jobs before needed, or before it is too late. Begin with your preparation to be a leader, and make your PI know, and discuss a good starting point. Look for leadership opportunities in any situations, such as coordinating workshops or conferences.

Sign up to run workshops and career developing series!. Many postdocs can discover a great professional gain if these opportunities would be offer to them. Get training in other expertise to be competitive in, for example, the investing or consulting field. Taking classes about how to give a class is a great example of a course that could be offered to postdocs and graduate students, in order to train them to explain and transfer their empirical knowledge to the next generation.

A month ago, at the Mount Sinai Postdoc symposium, Dr. Bruce Alberts (yes, THE Alberts,  from “The Molecular Biology of the Cell” book) who spoke about “The Future of Biology: Keeping Science Healthy” and illustrated the dramatic changes in the age of the scientist successfully obtaining project grants from NIH. In contrast to 30 years ago, the average age of new investigators with PhD at initial RO1 was 36.8 year old, a large number of grants were awarded to scientist in their early 30s, but this tendency has been decreasing drastically, to the point where now, the mean age for receiving these prestigious grants is 42 years of age. Dr. Alberts, himself, made fun on the fact that he obtained his postdoc position, before been awarded with his PhD. (which actually his thesis was rejected the first time, delaying the whole process) and learned from his failures. He also pointed out that he got his professor position at a very young age, something that is almost impossible nowadays. He advocated for a change in this unfair situation, which cripples the young innovators from getting a start. Also, he encouraged researchers to get out of the lab and talk to the public about science and its importance. First, to attract/engage curious minds to the scientific field, and second to communicate “in simple language” what we do for 9 hours plus per day in the lab.

We must offer to all this new scientific minds the reality about the current situation of science, but we also need to fix it, so it is not going to turn into a snow ball and make disappear all the interest in pursuing a scientific career for the new generations. In a business mind-set we must recognize that the money is not only in the governmental funding, but also in private foundations and other organizations like angels or venture capitals. So go out there and try to pitch your science to investors.

4 Ways to a Happier Postdoc


By Florence Chaverneff, PhD

Chances are, if you have been a postdoctoral fellow for a little while, you have at some point or another (unless it is constantly) felt like the ‘Desperate man’ in this painting by Gustave Courbet. So, in the aim of trying to help and save you from pulling your hair out of your head, here are a few pointers gathered both from personal experience and that of friends and co-workers which I hope will help you cruise through this particular phase of your career and make the most of it, whichever your next step.

1. Prepare your next step

Certainly, as a postdoctoral fellow, most of your efforts should be concentrated on making advances on your project(s) and getting fabulous data worthy of a 30+ impact factor journal. Equally as important, you should start thinking as early as possible about what your next step should be. If you’re not planning on staying in academia to pursue a tenure track position, which, according to statistics should be the case for about 85% of you, you will need to have a plan B. Some sectors are more popular or should I say, more intuitive as a career alternative (think pharma and biotech sectors). But you shouldn’t limit yourself to those areas, as a whole array of attractive options is available to a postdoctoral fellow seeking to transition outside of academia. What these alternatives are and how to figure out which ones fit(s) you best, as well as how to land a job will be the subject of a future post. Utilize the resources available to you at your current institution as much as you can. If you are as lucky as I am, your university will have a very active office of postdoctoral affairs that organizes a plethora of events aimed at helping fellows with their ‘individual development plan’, a term I only learnt about quite recently I’m afraid to admit.You don’t want to be a postdoc forever. No, really, you don’t. Knowing what’s coming next undoubtedly will help you tackle with poise the many challenges you will be facing during this period. As a side note, international postdocs intending on pursuing their career in the U.S. should also plan on acquiring permanent residency while in academia.

2. Manage your stress

Start to realize that most of the stress you experience is self-imposed. So, make it easy on yourself and go to yoga. Free yoga if you can, cause, you know… Naturally, your PI will most likely be starving for data from everyone in the lab, including you, and knowingly or not, also constitute a sizeable source of stress. Just remember one thing. Your advisor is a whole lot more stressed than you are. And that might have to do with the fact that he/she NEEDS data. No data, no publications. No publications, no grant. No grant, no money. And, well, no money, no lab. It is visibly in everyone’s interest to keep the lab. You know the not so old adage, so I’m not going to repeat it. So, learn to deal with your advisor. This might require a good deal of social and emotional intelligence from you. Developing such skills to the point where they become automatic will be essential throughout your career in dealing effectively with bosses and co-workers. You might find it useful to get acquainted with personality tests such as the well-renowned and widely-used Myers-Briggs. This is a great tool to learn about yourself, of course, but also to use as a complement to social and emotional intelligence to successfully interact and work with any personality type.

3. Ask for help

Another great source of frustration in the professional life of a postdoc is dealing with experiments that either simply fail, are not reproducible, do not yield statistically significant results, or even, contradict your working hypothesis, without even mentioning all kinds of other mishaps that are likely to happen along the way. The best way to deal with these issues is to talk them through with your labmates. They might have great insights about things you wouldn’t think of or notice because you are so involved in your project and experiments. So, don’t hesitate to ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness!

4. Enjoy your free time

Finally, by all means, try and manage a proper work-life balance. I mentioned yoga earlier, but really, anything that floats your boat and takes you out of the lab, not just outside the door, but literally outdoors. Too many postdocs I have encountered spend most of their awake time in the lab, the rest being spent eating, grocery shopping or doing house chores. If that sounds fun to you, I’m not sure what to tell you. In the opposite case, try and make time to spend on your favorite activity, be it sports, playing guitar or painting. And hang out with your friends and family. Working 24/7 is plain unhealthy and unproductive. So if you feel like you don’t have the time, it most likely is because you’re not managing your time properly. Then, I recommend you learn about time management, be it in a course, a book or on the internet. Also, instead of spending long incubation periods chatting with labmates or surfing the web to whatever websites you favor, do something productive, like catching up on your reading, planning your next experiments, analyzing data…There is plenty to be done and lots of options to pick from. If your project is simply extremely labor-intensive, find yourself an eager undergrad to help lighten the workload. In addition to saving you precious time, you will get practice in mentoring and teaching.

I hope these few tips will help you be a happier postdoc!

5 Tips to Kickstart Your Postdoc Job Search!


By Tara Burke

The last few years of your graduate career are both exciting and stressful. If you think you’d like to continue your biomedical training after graduation it’s never too soon to get a jump-start preparing for the next step in your career. As someone who recently went through this transition, I learned a lot about this lengthy process; a transition that can be a little daunting at times. A compounding factor of the postdoctoral job search is the lack of a defined roadmap. While there are numerous graduate school and job fairs, I have yet to come across a postdoc fair.  Below, I offer you 5 tips that will help you make the transition from graduate student to postdoctoral fellow. In my next two follow-up posts, I will provide more tips on the application and interview phases of your search. Together, these tips will help guide you towards your dream postdoc!


1) Construct a timeline 

It’s important to consider all the factors of your postdoc search and to assemble a realistic timeline. A general timeline for the entire postdoc job search is about 6 months (from sending the first application to your start date) but you need time before those last 6 months to prepare your materials and decide your direction. You may require less time if you’ve already been networking with a specific lab or if you don’t plan on moving to a new city or university. More than likely however, 6 months may be too conservative if you plan on moving long distance, are unsure about what research you want to explore during your postdoc, or have to coordinate your prospects and location with a significant other’s career. It is also important that you establish a timeline with your advisor. Some advisors may need you to stay in the lab for a bit after your defense to wrap up projects and manuscripts while others may not have the money or space for you to stay.


2) Review your current credentials

Your research interests, publications and recommendations will be the main focus of your CV when applying to postdocs. Assessing the quality and quantity of these items a few years before graduation gives you the time to strengthen them. For example, if you feel that you don’t have three strong names to list as a recommendation, now is the time to foster some additional relationships. The more your recommenders interact with you, the more personal your recommendation will be.  If you fear your publication list may be a little thin, you may want to talk to your advisor about helping with another project in the lab or writing a review.


3) Seek out career resources 

To prepare for the job application process, find and use all available resources provided to you by your lab, department and university. As career services for graduate students can vary widely depending on the university, you may have to do a little searching to find the right websites and/or offices that can aid you in a number of skills important for securing a position. Career counselors provide helpful services such as proofreading of cover letters and CVs, and help with the interview process (proper etiquette, mock interviews, phone interview guidelines etc.). Additionally, making regular appointments with a career counselor can make you accountable to deadlines you set for preparing your application materials. Don’t forget to seek out help from those around you. Your advisor, postdocs in your lab and fellow graduate students either have experience with this process or are about to go through it themselves.


4) Observe your lab environment

Working in close quarters with a spectrum of personalities can lead to a stressful and frustrating environment. As a graduate student you should take note of certain environmental stressors that you don’t want in your next lab. Do you thrive in a highly collaborative lab or would you rather work solely on your own project? You should also assess your relationship with your advisor. Do you enjoy being micro-managed or would you rather be completely autonomous? While most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes, it’s important to know where you fall. Knowing what you need in a mentor and lab environment will help you find a lab and advisor that will allow you to thrive.


5) Get out there!

Although it may be a little early for you to start sending out applications there are other things you can do to prepare for your next career step.  Start making a list of interesting papers you have read recently. This list will be a great start to your online search for potential postdoc labs. Attend more seminars outside your direct research interests. You may discover a lab doing really neat research that you may not come across while reading papers.  Volunteer to help host a speaker at your university. This will allow you to directly network with an investigator whose research you admire. Present posters or give short talks at your university. This will make you more comfortable speaking about your research and this skill will come in handy when you have to sell yourself during a postdoc interview.